Behind the Scenes of How Children Learn to Read

By Dr. Raymond Huntington

If you are the parent of a young child, a big focus of your academic efforts right now is helping your child learn how to read. And while the process might seem simple, reading is a complex, multi-step process. It starts with the very basic teaching that certain symbols represent sounds, and those symbols—called letters—are grouped together to make other sounds. But reading quickly becomes more complicated, and it is important that early readers receive the right instruction.

What should that instruction look like? Here’s an overview of the basics of how children learn to read:

Systematic phonics

EdWeek shares that the National Reading Panel found that systematic phonics instruction leads to the “greatest gains in reading accuracy for young students.” That’s when students are taught the progression of letter-sound correspondences in a methodical way. Teachers help students understand the relationship between written symbols and their sounds.


The next step toward mastering reading is decoding when children use small words or word units to figure out larger words. Learning to decode helps students recognize root words, prefixes and suffixes (for example, at is in cat and bat).

Phonemic awareness

Phonemes are the smallest units that make up spoken language, and they combine to make syllables and words. To learn to read, young children must learn to recognize the differences in sounds and break words apart into their phonemes. For example, pan is made up of the p, a and n sounds. It’s important that they recognize that some phonemes have multiple sounds, such as c, which can make a hard c sound or an s sound.


Reading fluency is the ability to read with speed and expression without compromising accuracy. It comes with practice and of course relies upon the ability to recognize words on sight without having to sound them out part by part.


It goes without saying: children need to be able to understand what they read. Your child should be able to read a passage or chapter, answer questions about the who, what, when, where and why, make predictions about what might happen next, and summarize. Vocabulary development is an important part of comprehension.

There's More

There are other pieces to the reading acquisition puzzle, of course, such as the memorization of high-frequency words that appear often in texts and learning to identify letter patterns and recognize them when decoding unfamiliar words. It’s also important that children understand sentence structure and punctuation in order to get the context of that which they read.

Reading takes instruction and practice to master and it doesn’t come easily to everyone. When children have trouble with reading, it could be that they are missing important building blocks of reading and need focused guidance to rebuild those missing skills.

If your child needs to improve reading skills, Huntington can help. Call 1-800 CAN LEARN to hear more about our individualized reading instruction programs and how we can help your child boost these important skills as well as his or her confidence.